Monday, May 25, 2015

1938: Bette Davis for Jezebel

 In her second and final Oscar-winning performance, Bette Davis plays Julie, a scheming Southern Belle who is always determined to have her own way. This would involve marrying banker Preston "Pres" Dillard (Henry Fonda), but she picks one too many quarrels with him and he leaves for New York, where he meets and marries Amy, a Northerner. Julie is determined to get Pres back, but the yellow fever epidemic might get him first.

As a whole, this movie didn't quite do it for me. Too much of the plot relied on old-fashioned Southern traditions that were never really explained. Presumably, audiences were supposed to understand why it was such a big deal for an unmarried woman to wear red to a ball and why mentioning a woman's name was cause for a duel, but I kept feeling like I was missing something. I also thought Julie's character was rather inconsistent: she blatantly disregarded the arbitrary dress color rules, but then was very condescending toward Amy for not bothering to learn all the Southern traditions. If you care about traditions so much, why do you ignore them? I'm pretty sure this was intentional, but I was still unclear as to what the film was trying to say. If they were trying to point out the fallacy of 19th century Southern tradition, they shouldn't have had Julie and Pres end up together.

While I didn't love the movie, and I didn't really like her character, I was impressed by Bette Davis's performance. It was definitely a lot better than her other Best Actress-winning performance in Dangerous. In that film she was way over-the-top, but in this she was far more controlled. Her Southern accent actually worked pretty well, considering she was actually born in Massachusetts. And while I really wanted to hate Julie for being manipulative and self-destructive, I still couldn't help rooting for her. Somehow, Davis managed to elicit sympathy for a truly awful character. There are probably a lot better standards for judging a performance, but as an audience member who generally prefers nice people, I'm always impressed when actors can make me feel for characters that I definitely wouldn't like in real life. I still think All About Eve is the best Bette Davis movie I've seen, but I'd call this performance Oscar-worthy.

Though this was Davis's last Oscar, she was nominated 8 more times: for 1939's Dark Victory, 1940's The Letter, 1941's The Little Foxes, 1942's Now, Voyager, 1944's Mr. Skeffington, 1950's All About Eve, 1952's The Star, and 1962's Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? As of when I'm writing this, she is one of only 13 people to win multiple Best Actress Oscars, and one of only 3 people to have at least 10 Best Actress nominations. She is generally considered to be one of the greatest film actresses of all time, so while I don't think she won for her best performances, I'm glad that she won two Oscars, since so many legendary performers have been snubbed by the Academy. At least they recognized Bette Davis.

Next up is Vivien Leigh, another non-Southerner playing a Southern Belle, in the third Best Picture Winner to feature a Best Actress winning performance.

No comments:

Post a Comment